By coincidence, Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder of the nonprofit Acumen Fund, an investor in d.light, wrote a blog post the other day about a visit that she and a company executive, David Small, had made to a d.light customer named Teresia in Benin.
Teresia had bought a $40 lantern, borrowing the money to do so and paying it back at the rate of $3.50 a week — less, she said, than she used to pay for kerosene. She proceeds, at some length, to tell David Small how to improve the product: She’d like the light to be able to charge her phone, she’d like it to charge a radio because batteries are expensive and couldn’t she have a way to hang the light from the ceiling?
As I watch Teresia and David exchanging thoughts about consumer satisfaction, emotion swells inside. This is why I am doing this work. This is why I started Acumen: I am witnessing a conversation of equals, one between an empowered consumer and a businessman trying to serve her. Teresia is not pandering nor is she begging. David is neither self-satisfied with his own sense of benevolence, nor is he assuming he has the answers. Teresia may have next to nothing of material value in the world, but here she is, full of dignity, full of the confidence that comes with doing something for yourself and paying for it, to boot. Her eyes sparkle with curiosity and strength. Teresia has earned this conversation. David must continue to work for her loyalty and trust as a customer. In the process, both have the chance to be transformed.
Interesting, no? This helps explain what Tice says is the company’s competitive edge.
“The really big thing that has changed is that we have pushed the whole market in the direction of a better-quality product,” he said. “Consumers don’t want a cheap product. The product has to work, and it has to work for a long time.”
D.light is now offering two- or three-year warranties on their lanterns, telling customers that the products should last for five years, and designing them to last longer. “It’s really important that people trust what they buy,” he said. In other words, poor consumers are very much like you and me: They want a quality product at a good price from a company they trust.
D.light has raised about $20 million so far, including about $15 million from a mix of traditional venture investors like DFJ and Nexus India and from impact or social investors like Acumen and the Omidyar Network. The company borrowed about $3 million from Deutsche Bank, and it has brought in about $2 million in grants. It will probably need more capital, Tice says, to reach its goal of changing the lives of 100 million people by 2020.
“It’s great to celebrate our success,” he said, “but we shouldn’t rest until we’ve really moved the needle.”
And it's proven that yes, there really is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.
Photo of a girl in India studying with d.light provided by company.